By The Very Rev. Dean R. Gillow, Parish Priest of Ramsey. 1864-1900
RAMSEY, in the Isle of Man, is now a rising and important watering place. But a few years ago, it was nothing more than a fisher hamlet of a few hundred people. Now, it occupies an important place amongst the leading summer resorts, and has a resident population of 5,000. Like the adjacent islands of Ireland and Great Britain, Ramsey has passed through the purifying fire of religious trials. At the Reformation, this little corner of the Lords Vineyard suffered like the rest. in Catholic times, religion prospered here, as witness Rushen Abbey, at Castletown : the Nunnery, at Douglas, and the Cistercian monastery, at Sulby, where the graves of the monks are still shown on the top of Primrose Hill. At Kirk Bride may be seen the venerable old church of St. Bridget, weighed down with its mass of ivy outside, while inside were, at one time, Sacrarium, crucifix. chalice, and holy water stoup. The old church was taken down a few years ago, to make room for a brand new Protestant building, and the old relics of the Catholic past are still to be seen in the adjoining Gods acre. They are jealously guarded by the simple-minded country folk, and held in the greatest reverence. I was once offered one of these Catholic heirlooms the holy water stoop but the ward and watch kept on this relic was so strict, that it could not be removed, and I was told that it would raise a riot in the parish to attempt it. I did not see these things in the church, but when it was taken down to make room for the new church, the cross and the other sacred mementos were found by the workmen, and placed in the churchyard. I was told some weeks ago that the chalice used in the old church is now in the keeping of the rector and Wardens of Bride.
Sulby Monastery has been turned into a farmhouse and offices. This monastery was once connected, with Furness Abbey. Among the tombs in the immediate neighbourhood is shown one of the Knights Templar of old.
The present parish church of St. Maughold stands on the foundations of an ancient chapel traditionally held to have been erected by the name-saint himself some time in the fifth or sixth century.
The little chapel at Ballure is another footprint in the sands of time. Its walls also rest on the foundations of the former St. Marys chapel.
Cromwell called at the Island on his return journey from Ireland, and after his manner, lent his hand to finish the destruction others had begun. The tree St. Patrick and his disciples had planted, this destroyer cut down, and grubbed up its very roots as he thought. But "God disposes." Some rootlets of the old stock lay deeply hidden in the ground, These grew on in the dark, and throve, though unknown and despised, till God in His own good time lifted them up to flourish in the golden sunlight.
At the Nappin, Jurby, we find in the middle of a large field, the remains of what was once a Catholic Church. The north-east gable has a three-light window, embedded in the orthodox red sandstone. In the south-east wall, in the corner, are the two niches for the wine and water cruets, and underneath, the Sacrarium. I was informed that some 200 years ago, the building was cut through the middle in order to make a school. This church was dedicated to St. Patrick, and the east and south-east gables, which are still standing, afford ample evidence of its former uses as a Catholic place of worship. In the south west corner of this field there is a charming green spot, under which is a heap of stones filling up what was once known as St. Patricks well, the water from which still flows down to the sea.
Just before the beginning of the current century, the Catholics of the Isle of Man were fewer than 20 all told. Now, they reckon more than 2,000. At present we have a church and resident congregation in each of the four principal towns of the Island. So the old faith has sprung to life again and grown. How was the old religion fostered through those years? By the zeal of a few Irish priests, who ventured from time to time to come over to the Island, disguised in various ways. They crossed over in fishing boats, and prior to their visit, they sent warning to some of the few Catholics personally known to them in the Island. From one to another, the word was secretly passed, to meet on a given day at an appointed cottage in some out-of-the-way place. There, upon his arrival, the priest celebrated Holy Mass, and administered the Sacraments. In various conversations with some of my old parishioners, I have learned many particulars of those times, especially in the neighbourhood of Ramsey. Amongst the earliest priests known to run the gauntlet were two brothers of the name of Collins who said Mass in a small house kept by a Mrs. Matheson. near the Old Cross, in College Street.
After them a French priest ventured into the lions den, by name Father Louis. He offered the Holy sacrifice in Patrick Maxwells cottage in College Street, and in the attic of the same house gave the first mission held in Ramsey since the Reformation. Twelve Catholics attended that mission. They were gathered together from the northern parishes by means of private messengers. Everything of this nature had to be done with the strictest secrecy, so as not to arouse the ill-feeling which then existed among the Ramsey Protestants.
The following interesting picture of the time and its difficulties was given me by an old member of the congregation, Edward Collins, of King Street. At the time referred to, Collins was a youngster living with his father, who kept a marine store in the same street. Father Gahan was in the habit of visiting Ramsey about four times a year in order to afford the few faithful an opportunity of hearing Mass and receiving the Sacraments. He used to send word in advance from Douglas that he was coming on the following Sunday. This message would come to old Mr. Collins, who despatched his son, Edwardnow a grey-haired old manto two Catholics living five miles off at Kirk Andreas, to tell them of the advent of the priest. From Andreas, the lad had to strike off across country to Ballaugh Village. where four more Catholics lived. Then he made his way home to Ramsey, after a round of more than twenty miles. On the appointed Sunday, the little flock came together in the back parlour of Mr. Freds shop at the bottom of King Street, hard by the Market Place. On these occasions, the entire congregation assembled for Mass did not number more than twelve. Only the "grown-ups" were allowed to enter the room. The children were shut out for fear of spoiling the good mans carpet! This arrangement was kept up for a considerable time.
It may be pertinently asked, how did the priests get about in those early days? At that time, there were no roads, or nothing to call roads, as we understand the term nowadays. There were only rough, narrow bridle paths, as we should call them, rambling at their own sweet will, up hill and down dale in the roughest and unreadiest manner conceivable. There was nothing for the priest but to mount "St. Francis pony." he tramped afoot over the rocky shingly,or sandy, unformed roads, off times weary and footsore. Once in a way a cart as rough as the roads might give him a lift for a mile or two, but there were no snug railways, or even engineer planned highways in those days in the land of the three legs.
So far, the Island had got its priests from Ireland. About 1837, it was attached to what is now the English Diocese of Liverpool, and Father McGrath was the first priest to come from England. He was a most worthy priest, and hard-working in his own peculiar apostolic fashion. He served the whole Island for about twenty-one years, and his great piety and charity, together with his charming simplicity, are talked of to this day.
Here ends the ancient history and the dark ages of the Catholic Church of the Little Man Island. There was a brief interval, during which several priests came to the Island, but I cannot hear of anything they did for Ramsey. Possibly they did not stop long enough to do anything for Ramsey worthy of special record.
Modern history and better times began with the coming of Father Carr, now Monsignor Carr, V.G., of Formby. In 1860, Father Thomas Bridges, now of Fleetwood, and myself joined Father Carr at Douglas. The new church in that town had just been opened, and we were in time to open the new presbytery. Towards the end of the same year we had a mission on a large scale at Douglas. In the fervour thus awakened, it was determined to do something more for Ramsey than make merely casual visits. At that time a man named Patrick Lanaghan made and sold tallow candles in an out-of-the-way place in College Street. In this incongruous place we set up our Tabernacle. We arranged to undertake the visit to Ramsey alternately, so as to give the few faithful Mass once a fortnight. The priest who attended had to look after the sick, &c., during his visit, and in the course of the two weeks following, one of the older girls was appointed to teach the Catechism to the children. Winter and summer we started in a car from Douglas about half-past seven in the morning, so as to reach Ramsey by half-past ten at the latest. Upon arriving here, we heard confessions, said Mass, preached, &c., above the tallow storing and boiling room, the savoury fumes of tallow, paraffin, and sulphuric acid ascending instead of incense. Barring the martyrdom, the catacombs were preferable. After Mass, we shared the hospitality of Mr. James Flinn, of Parliament Street, and his amiable family. Prayers and another sermon at six o'clock in the evening brought the days work in Ramsey to a close. Then climb into the one-horse covered car or outside car, according to the weather, and jog nearly twenty miles back again to Douglas in all kinds of weather and often through fierce storms. It generally seemed to be wet, or wintry, or dark, or all three.
This kind of thing lasted till 1863. That year saw a change for the better so far as the Ramsey mission was concerned. For this, the mission in Ramsey is greatly beholden to the family of the late Mr. John Lane, of Liverpool. and also to Mr. Francis Dobson, his son-in-law. Both these gentlemen took a deep interest in the welfare of this mission. About this time too, Catholic summer visitors were beginning to find their way to remote Ramsey. For them as well as for the little flock of Catholic residents, something better than Lanaghans upper room was needed. Messrs. Lane and Dobson accordingly set about to find a suitable building to turn into a chapel, or a suitable site upon which to erect a chapel. There was the West Street Brewery, also the large malting room at the Lezayre Road Brewery available, but certain individuals who had personal interests threw cold water on the suggestion to take either of these places. But in 1863 the proper thing turned up. What is now our chapel was then a rough kind of warehouse. it was announced to he sold by auction, and Mr. Lane chanced to hear of it. He thought the building could he made into a fairly decent chapel. and that it would he quite big enough for current needs. So through the intermediary of a Protestant acquaintance, he bought the place. The old building had its own humble history of vicissitudes. So far back as the year 1812 it was erected for a flour-store. Some years later, it changed both masters and uses. From warehousing flour, it rose to the dignity and elegance of drapery, and then descended to the baser uses of a spirit vault. The story also goes that it was a notorious refuge for gentlemen of free trade proclivities, alias smugglers. After that it was by turns, a theatre, a coachbuilders, and a paint shop, and last of all it became a Catholic Chapel. Little thought the masons who built it in 1812 to what noble use their work would one day come. Mr. Dobson quickly effected the necessary alterations. Mr. Bellhouse, ironfounder, of Manchester, an amateur architect of no mean ability, helping with the designs. By October, all was ready for the great opening day, and the families of Mr. Lane and Mr. Dobson came over to Ramsey on purpose for the function. On the 10th day of October 1863, the chapel was solemnly blessed and opened with High Mass. I was the celebrant, Father Carr was deacon and preached the sermon, and Father Bridges was sub-deacon. The inevitable collection was made in due form, and produced a gross total of £10, of which it is needless to add the greater portion was given by the Lanes and the Dobsons. Upon this occasion we had the assistance of a special choir from Douglas, under the leadership of Mr. James Brown founder of the Isle of Man Times, the organist being Mr. William Clucas. After this, the fortnightly Mass was celebrated regularly at the new Chapel. On the Sundays when there was no Mass, the few who openly professed their faith, assembled at Ivy Castle, on the Promenade, the residence of Miss Stephenson, now Mrs. Smith, of Liscard, in Cornwall. Instead of Mass, they had prayers out of the "Garden of the Soul," and other spiritual reading.
On July 1st, 1864, I was sent to Ramsey, by the late Bishop of Liverpool. Dr. Goss, to prepare the children for the first Confirmation service, held in Ramsey since the Reformation. At that ceremony, sixteen children were confirmed.
And now for the last chapter in this eventful story. About the middle of July, 1864. Dr. Goss created Ramsey into a separate mission, dependent upon its own resources. He appointed me to take up the good work, and give it a trial for six months, and to see what the place could do towards supporting its own priest. One alleged reason for this move was that Douglas found itself unable to maintain three priests, and that the Ramsey mission, with its trap hire, &c., was a burden to Douglas. Another reason was to provide for an exchange of confessors. it was also hoped that by sending me to this poverty-stricken place, some substantial help might be drawn from certain quarters. This last hope certainly failed. The pastor was left severely alone to struggle on as best he could with his few poor people, who numbered 130 in all, but of whom not more than 50 attended Mass. The six months trial has extended to thirty-seven years. Armed with an imposing document of foolscap, bearing the seal of the Diocese of Liverpool, I formally introduced myself by reading the said document, it being the brief of appointment from the Bishop. The church services were arranged, and things generally put into fixed and regular order, as they are to this day:
Holy Communion, 8 am.; Mass 10-30; Catechism, 2 p.m.; Rosary, Sermon and Benediction at 6-30 p.m. But like all new housekeepers, I found many things were wanted. We had the altar, candlesticks and benches, and I think that was all. The remainder we had to get. In spare time, I made some things such as the Baptismal Font, the frames for the pictures of the Stations of the Cross, and Benediction branches. In summer a few visitors willingly helped. Some of them were very kind, and seeing that many things were required, provided altar linen, vestments, pictures for the Stations, and a variety of other things equally useful.
When all the debts in connection with the alterations had been cleared off; the chapel was dedicated to St. Maughold,* by order of the Bishop, in the year 1871, and handed over to the Bishop of Liverpool as a present from Mr. John Lane, for the use of the Catholics of Ramsey.
The Church of St. Maughold, in Ramsey, stands on the ground which forms part of the entire district called Maughold. The saint, whose memory is thus stamped of the Isle of Man, lived towards the close of the 5th century. in early life he was a bandit chief. Being converted by St. Patrick the great Apostle of Ireland, he desired by a life of penance to atone for the sins of the past. St. Patrick therefore placed him in a small boat without oars or rudder and committed him to the wide ocean, to sail forth and live as a hermit whithersoever the waves bore him. The wild headland at the north of Man was the spot where he landed, now called Maugholds Head. For years like another St. John the Baptist in the desert, he dwelt in the neighbourhood of Ramsey, and won all hearts by his deep piety, his stern self denial, and his boundless charity. When the bishop of the Island died, the humble hermit, Maughold, was unanimously chosen to succeed him. His episcopal rule was full of energy, and to his powerful organisation is attributed the present division of the Island into parishes. He died in the odour of sanctity. and was raised to the honour of the Churchs canonised Saints.
Dr. OReilly, the late Bishop of Liverpool, in one of his last visitations, complimented me on having the little chapel more completely furnished than some of the larger and richer missions of the Diocese. Alone, and among strangers, who in the days gone by hated the name of Catholic, this beginning was beset with difficulty and trial. One functionary in the Church of England said to the then Rector of Ramsey, the Rev. W. Kermode: "We hear that the Popish priest is coming to live its Ramsey. Are you not going to raise an opposition?" But Mr. Kermode, with noble spirit, replied: "There are a number of Roman Catholics in town. They will not come to S. Pauls, nor go to any of the other places of worship. Let their own priest come, by all means, and see what he can do with them." Thus, the way was partially smoothed. For two or three months I passed to and fro about my duties without anyone to speak to outside my little flock. I had determined I should only be known as going about my prescribed duties. Then I was accidently introduced to the late Captain Aspinall, by whom I was taken to his home, and hospitably entertained. The ice was thus broken, and prejudice began to relax its hold upon the people of Ramsey. One instance will serve to show the difficulties I had to contend with. Shortly after I became settled here, I received a call to attend a sick person in the country, but I was told that no one in the garb of a priest would be admitted to the house. But the unfortunate person was dying, and had asked for a priest. There was no alternative but to disguise myself as well as I could, then I drove to the house, and was introduced to the doctor. I was shown upstairs to the room where the patient lay, and there being no one else present, I closed the door. I then drew a black handkerchief from my neck, and revealed myself to the delighted sick woman. "Oh, Father, how did you get here?" she asked. I, however, imposed silence on that subject, and knowing I might be interrupted and stopped any moment, went straight to the object of my visit. The duty completed, I urged her to keep in the grace of God, and endeavour to die a good death. She got better for a time, but took a relapse and finally died without the Sacraments, as I received no information of her falling ill again.
So my tale is told. The present building erected on what was formerly the beach,* and now well nigh a century old, has withstood many a furious storm, and its sacred threshold has been invaded by many an overflowing tide, so that at last it has begun to yield. If those new comers, who know not and care as little, what has been made out of such slender material, and who make free enough to suggest that more should he done, would but offer the wherewithal to do it, who would he so glad as I to buy new ground and build a new church fit alike for my little flock and our summer visitors?
In the history of this little mission we have a rare example of what can be done out of small things. The energy and generosity of those good English friends, Messrs. Lane and Dobson, are well worthy of imitation by their co-religionists from over the water. Let other good Catholics of our day do something equally good and equally great to make their names remembered in connection with Ramsey, and this brief history of its little Catholic Mission will not have been written in vain.
*Dean Gillow has often told me, more in the way of joke perhaps than anything else, how the little bell at the Catholic Church saved the Ellan Vannin from shipwreck. It was in the years long ago, when the Ellan Vannin was in her infancy that one dark night she lost her course, but the bells of the Catholic Chapel, which were heard on board, warned her that she was in a dangerous vicinity. Ramsey Courier Nov. 28 1898.
The present beautiful church dedicated to Our Lady Star of the Sea, and St. Maughold, and built by Sir Giles H. Scott, was opened in 1910.